Tuesday, January 12, 2010
War is very exciting
from an interview with photographer Don McCullin
Q: Do you ever wish that you'd started on this part of your career earlier and that the war years had been twenty rather than thirty? Or none? Was the war stuff necessary to inform the stark beauty of the landscape work?
Don McCullin: War is very exciting, let's not beat about the bush. As a young man you go to war if you've got the nerve to see it through. In the beginning you're slightly confused. You think 'Am I watching a Hollywood film, or am I in a Hollywood film?' But when see your first dead child and your first starving child, then you think 'God, this is awful.'
When I'm in the countryside, I'm getting the same excitement from doing landscapes. If I can stand and see a sun doing what it's doing, I think I've got a chance.
The two sides of my work have a message. One is evil and the other is meant to take that evil away, particularly in me personally. These things haven't come at a cheap price. Going to war is not an easy thing for me to get rid of. Not just because of the reputation but because of the memories of war itself, which I take to sleep some nights with me.
The images and memories of war and the screams and cries are still fresh in my mind. I can still smell a mattress that was burning in a house in Cyprus when I went to my first civil war. There were three dead bodies lying in that house, and the sweet smell of the warm blood in the early Mediterranean morning. People don't realise that smells, as well as vision, can be a very powerful memory.
When I took pictures in war I couldn't help thinking of [the 18th-19th century Spanish artist] Goya. It's the iconic adoration of the heavens and God when people are about to be shot. I remember the bullets hitting the men who were murdered in a Beirut doorway. With what last gasp of air they had in their lungs, and as they were dropping, I could hear the word 'Allah!' I almost had a breakdown because of this terrible scene.
Then a man came up to me and said, 'If you take any more pictures I'm going to kill you too. Get going!' I walked away. But, I came across another scene. I could hear music, classical music and I thought, 'God, what's going on? This is mad!' I heard someone say, 'Mister, take this photo!' There was a group of (Lebanon's Christian) Phalange, young boys about fourteen, fifteen with Thompson machine guns and Kalashnikovs. One of them had a lute and he was strumming it over the body of a dead Palestinian girl.
I was told not to take any pictures and I thought 'I can't walk past this.' I was risking my life just to get this picture. I had one more look behind me and I went, Bang, Bang. I didn't even do the exposure and I ran away. When I got back and processed the film the negative was very thin, but I did get an amazing picture. It was a purely sixteenth century Italian painting of war—and absurd because a man was playing the lute.
So how do you work out all that risotto of madness and then come back to England, Somerset, and try to be normal and go and do landscape photography? Strangely enough, I've managed to do it; and will continue to do it. When I'm doing these landscapes I feel as if I've got wings; I could fly from one hillside to the other. It's the only peace I can get out of my photography.